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This new device could someday cool your smartphone

Flexible cooling device made by UCLA engineers. Photo: UCLA Engineering

Researchers from UCLA and SRI International have developed a flexible, lightweight, cooling system that — if it can be mass-produced cost-effectively —could become a competitive cooling technology for small devices.

The problem: Vapor compression cooling systems used in air conditioners, cars and refrigerators are too large and bulky for much smaller applications like keeping smartphone batteries cool. Ceramic materials can be used but so far have been costly and less efficient than conventional cooling systems.

What they did: The researchers layered thin films of a polymer between two aluminum plates — one that was the source of heat (representing a smartphone battery, for example) and one that absorbed heat. As they applied and removed an electric field over the films, the polymer acts as the refrigerant — and moves heat back and forth between the plates. Repeating that process, they were able to cool a smartphone battery by more than 14 degrees Fahrenheit in 5 seconds.